Brexit offensive: A pincer movement between the Tories and the Labour right
11 October 2021
Why did Sir Keir Starmer, leading European Remainer and the framer of the six tests of a Brexit agreement, none of which were remotely met in the December deal, support Brexit and force Labour MPs to also support it? No matter how grotesque the Brexit carnage, building an effective opposition will have to be built in the absence of any majority political critique from Labour.
Every explanation requires a context. In this case the context is twofold. It rests with the history of the Labour Party and it also rests with the political collapse of Social Democracy across Europe. The result is a carnival of reaction that will seek to crush working class dissent in the face of a growing offensive.
Lenin explained: "the Labour Party is not a political workers party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that…"
Revolutionaries could not afford to ignore this "bourgeois workers" party, but they should not support a strategy that sees it as transforming into a true party of the working class. Left mobilisations in the party are few and far between and are ruthlessly suppressed. The glory days of Labour reformism were tied to a common purpose alongside British imperialism in defence of empire. The majority of the union leaderships and the party leaders were part of this partnership. It was largely at the base of the party and in the vanguard of union activists that one found socialist and anti-imperialist ideas expressed.
Following the post war boom, where other European countries outperformed Britain, the capitalists were able to work with the leaderships of the workers movements to depress wages and working conditions. Labour functionaries and the union bureaucracy opposed European membership as part of a little Englander consensus.
Later the effects of a low wage economy began to wear off and Britain, having failed to produce an alternative market with mainly Nordic countries, joined Europe in order to take advantage of the common market. The British union bureaucracy came to support Europe because European regulation produced a levelling up in workers’ rights that had fallen behind other European countries. They supported reform that did not require confrontation with local bosses.
In both Britain and Europe the rate of profit continued to decline. The Maastricht treaty, enforcing privatisation and austerity and subsequent evolution of European strategy made reform through centralised regulation an impossible task. The draw of European reform weakened while the pro-imperialist chauvinism and anti-migrant racism within Labour remained a strong force. No section of the Labour or union leaderships were able to convincingly argue against Brexit and Starmer's decision to offer uncritical support to a paper-thin deal has gone without any real challenge. The Labour right are roaring ahead, expelling members on fake antisemitism charges or on the even more spurious grounds of criticising the witch hunt. This blocks off Labour as a leading force in resisting the impoverishment of British workers that will follow immediately from Brexit or a force in calling Johnson and the Tories to account for their lies and ineptitude.
The evolution of the Labour movement in Britain is paralleled by the evolution of the workers movement in Europe. Social Democratic and Communist parties and their counterparts in the unions moved steadily to the right in response to the fall in profit rates and the continued political offensive that was part of the EUs foundation. a movement to the right accelerated by the fall of the USSR. The Social Democrats committed political suicide rather than oppose austerity. The scale of the shift was faster and steeper than in Britain because of the greater resistance within the workers movement and the increased need for suppression. For a period the Social Democrats were replaced by "eurocommunism" or by "broad parties" made up mostly of socialist parties who were themselves moving to the right.
The case study was Syriza in Greece. An alliance of euro communists and socialists, they promised to defeat austerity through a combination of parliamentary action and negotiation with Europe. They failed utterly and became the driving force for enforcing austerity in Greece.
The attempt in Britain to remobilise around a reformist programme was unusual in that it took place inside an existing Social Democratic Party. The outcome was the same as that in Europe. Labour committed political suicide to rid itself of Corbyn and tore up the rulebook with a fake antisemitism witch hunt to rid itself of radicals. Starmer is restoring the old picture of a party of patriots, standing in line ready to take charge when the Tories disgrace themselves but offering no real alternative - in fact going to great lengths to walk back promises on free movement for works and welfare reforms.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of Labour saw an influx of radical youth, but they were intellectually and politically untrained and were easily outmanoeuvred by the existing right-wing forces, by Corbyn's willingness to sacrifice himself to preserve unity with the right and his inability to advance a radical alternative to Brexit
The defeat of that current is mirrored across Europe. The collapse of Syriza was followed by frantic attempts to build many Syrizas across the continent.
The "broad left" idea, advanced by the socialist groups, imagined that they could capture a left space abandoned by the social democrats. In the event, the Labour forces were in full flight from confrontation with capitalism and the socialists found themselves joining the political rout. The "Lexit and Irexit" ideas advanced by the left were simply exercises in opportunism that left them focused on parliamentarianism and identity politics without any proposals for the defence of the working class.
However, the confusion is not confined to the left. A capitalist offensive won't solve the crisis and this is demonstrated by the outcome of Brexit. The flow of migrants from Europe has declined, but this will in no way diminish the tide of racism - in fact it will increase, as will the need to combat it. More generally the British government has gained access to the European market and promised to retain common regulation. Yet the main justification for Brexit was freedom to change health, welfare and environmental regulation. Rather than "get Brexit done" we face a long and protracted struggle between Britain and Europe, a growing majority against the government and against Brexit itself and a clear weakening of the internal structure of the UK.
Europe itself has not escaped unscathed. It has faced down Boris, but in many ways led the suppression of migrant rights that spurred Brexit. It has placated far right regimes in the East who are tearing up human rights. It faces for the second time an economic crisis fuelled in this case by Covid-19 and yet again has rested the cost on the poorer nations and the working class.
The task today is the task of regroupment. The central demand, the counterweight to Brexit, is the call for a United Socialist States of Europe. That demand has to be made concrete. In Europe that means re-entry, but rather than supporting the bosses club, linking to and supporting the many opportunities for solidarity in the European workers movement that will continue to arise. In Britain the whole intention of Brexit is to crush the workers. Socialists must be prepared for the inevitable mobilisations that are to come.